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Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804-1864

Nathaniel Hawthorne

By Henry James, 1896

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804- 1864). Written for the Library of the World's Best Literature Ancient and Modern, Vol. Xll.

New York: R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill, 1896

IT IS PERHAPS an advantage in writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne's work, that his life offers little opportunity to the biographer. The record of it makes so few exactions that in a critical account of him--even as brief as this--the work may easily take most of the place. He was one of those happy men of letters in whose course the great milestones are simply those of his ideas that found successful form. Born at Salem, Massachusetts, on July 4th, 1804, of established local Puritan--and in a conspicuous degree, sturdy seafaring--stock, he was educated at his birthplace and at Bowdoin College, Maine, where H. W. Longfellow was one of his fellow-students Another was Franklin Pierce, who was to be elected President of the United States in 1852, and with whom Hawthorne formed relations that became an influence in his life. On leaving college in 1825 he returned to Salem to live, and in 1828 published in Boston a short romance called "Fanshawe," of which the scene, in spite of its being a "love story," is laid, but for a change of name, at Bowdoin, with professors and undergraduates for its male characters. The experiment was inevitably faint, but the author's beautiful touch had begun to feel its way. In 1837, after a dozen years spent in special solitude, as he later testified, at Salem, he collected as the first series of "Twice-Told Tales" various more or less unremunerated contributions to the magazines and annuals of the day. In 1845 appeared the second series, and in I85I the two volumes were, with a preface peculiarly graceful and touching, reissued together; he is in general never more graceful than when prefatory. In 1851 and 1854 respectively came to light "The Snow Image" and "Mosses from an Old Manse," which form, with the previous double sheaf, his three main gatherings-in of the shorter fiction. I neglect, for brevity and as addressed to children, "Grandfather's Chair" and "The Wonder Book" (1851), as well as "Tanglewood Tales" (1852). Of the other groups, some preceded, some followed, the appearance in 1850 of his second novel, "The Scarlet Letter."

These things--the experiments in the shorter fiction--had sounded, with their rare felicity, from the very first the note that was to be Hawthorne's distinguished mark, that feeling for the latent romance of New England, which in summary form is the most final name to be given, I think, to his inspiration. This element, which is what at its best his genius most expresses, was far from obvious, it had to be looked for; and Hawthorne found it, as he wandered and mused, in the secret play of the Puritan faith: the secret, I say particularly, because the direct and ostensible, face to face with common tasks and small conditions (as I may call them without prejudice to their general grimness), arrived at forms of which the tender imagination could make little. It could make a great deal, on the other hand, of the spiritual contortions, the darkened outlook, of the ingrained sense of sin, of evil, and of responsibility. There had been other complications in the history of the community surrounding him,--savages from behind, soldiers from before, a cruel climate from every quarter and a pecuniary remittance from none. But the great complication was the pressing moral anxiety, the restless individual conscience. These things were developed at the cost of so many others, that there were almost no others left to help them to make a picture for the artist. The artist's imagination had to deck out the subject, to work it up, as we nowadays say; and Hawthorne's was,--on intensely chastened lines, indeed,--equal to the task. In that manner it came into exercise from the first, through the necessity of taking for granted, on the part of the society about him, a life of the spirit more complex than anything that met the mere eye of sense. It was a question of looking behind and beneath for the suggestive idea, the artistic motive; the effect of all of which was an invaluable training for the faculty that evokes and enhances. This ingenuity grew alert and irrepressible as it manoeuvred for the back view and turned up the under side of common aspects, the laws secretly broken, the impulses secretly felt, the hidden passions, the double lives, the dark corners, the closed rooms, the skeletons in the cupboard and at the feast. It made, in short, and cherished, for fancy's sake, a mystery and a glamour where there were otherwise none very ready to its hand; so that it ended by living in a world of things symbolic and allegoric, a presentation of objects casting, in every case, far behind them a shadow more curious and more amusing than the apparent figure. Any figure therefore easily became with him an emblem, any story a parable, any appearance a cover: things with which his concern is--gently, indulgently, skillfully, with the lightest hand in the world--to pivot them round and show the odd little stamp or sign that gives them their value for the collector.

The specimens he collected, as we may call them, are divisible into groups, but with the mark in common that they are all early products of the dry New England air. Some are myths and mysteries of old Massachusetts,--charming ghostly passages of colonial history. Such are "The Grey Champion," "The Maypole of Merry Mount," the four beautiful "Legends of the Province House." Others, like "Roger Malvin's Burial," "Rappaccini's Daughter," "Young Goodman Brown," are "moralities" without the moral, as it were; small cold apologues, frosty and exquisite, occasionally gathered from beyond the sea. Then there are the chapters of the fanciful all for fancy's sake, of the pure whimsical, and of observation merely amused and beguiled; pages, many of them, of friendly humorous reflections on what, in Salem or in Boston a dreamer might meet in his walks. What Hawthorne encountered he instinctively embroidered, working it over with a fine, slow needle, and with flowers pale, rosy, or dusky, as the case might suggest. We have a handful of these in "The Great Carbuncle" and "The Great Stone Face," "The Seven Vagabonds," "The Threefold Destiny," "The Village Uncle," "The Toll Gatherer's Day," "A Rill from the Town Pump," and "Chippings with a Chisel." The inequalities in his work are not, to my sense, great; and in specifying, we take and leave with hesitation.

"The Scarlet Letter," in 1850, brought him immediate distinction, and has probably kept its place not only as the most original of his novels, but as the most distinguished piece of prose fiction that was to spring from American soil. He had received in 1839 an appointment to a small place in the Boston custom-house, where his labors were sordid and sterile, and he had given it up in permissible weariness. He had spent in 1841 near Roxbury, Massachusetts, a few months in the co-operative community of Brook Farm, a short-lived socialistic experiment. He had married in the following year and gone to live at the old Manse at Concord, where he remained till 1846, when, with a fresh fiscal engagement, he returned to his native town. It was in the intervals of his occupation at the Salem custom-house that "The Scarlet Letter" was written. The book has achieved the fortune of the small supreme group of novels: it has hung an ineffaceable image in the portrait gallery, the reserved inner cabinet, of literature. Hester Prynne is not one of those characters of fiction whom we use as a term of comparison for a character of fact: she is almost more than that,--she decorates the museum in a way that seems to forbid us such a freedom. Hawthorne availed himself, for her history, of the most striking anecdote the early Puritan chronicle could give him,--give him in the manner set forth by the long, lazy Prologue or Introduction, an exquisite commemoration of the happy dullness of his term of service at the custom-house, where it is his fancy to pretend to have discovered in a box of old papers the faded relic and the musty documents which suggested to him his title and his theme.

It is the story as old as the custom of marriage,--the story of the husband, the wife, and the lover; but bathed in a misty, moonshiny light, and completely neglecting the usual sources of emotion. The wife, with the charming child of her guilt, has stood under the stern inquisitorial law in the public pillory of the adulteress; while the lover, a saintly young minister, undetected and unbetrayed, has in an anguish of pusillanimity suffered her to pay the whole fine. The husband, an ancient scholar, a man of abstruse and profane learning, finds his revenge years after the wrong, in making himself insidiously the intimate of the young minister, and feeding secretly on the remorse, the inward torments, which he does everything to quicken but pretends to have no ground for suspecting. The march of the drama lies almost wholly in the malignant pressure exercised in this manner by Chillingworth upon Dimmesdale; an influence that at last reaches its climax in the extraordinary penance of the subject, who in the darkness, in the sleeping town, mounts, himself, upon the scaffold on which, years before, the partner of his guilt has undergone irrevocable anguish. In this situation he calls to him Hester Prynne and her child, who, belated in the course of the merciful ministrations to which Hester has now given herself up, pass, among the shadows, within sight of him; and they in response to his appeal ascend for a second time to the place of atonement, and stand there with him under cover of night. The scene is not complete, of course, till Chillingworth arrives to enjoy the spectacle and his triumph. It has inevitably gained great praise, and no page of Hawthorne's shows more intensity of imagination; yet the main achievement of the book is not what is principally its subject,--the picture of the relation of the two men. They are too faintly--the husband in particular--though so fancifully figured. "The Scarlet Letter" lives, in spite of too many cold concetti,--Hawthorne's general danger,--by something noble and truthful in the image of the branded mother and the beautiful child. Strangely enough, this pair are almost wholly outside the action; yet they preserve and vivify the work.

"The House of the Seven Gables," written during a residence of two years at Lenox, Massachusetts, was published in 1851. If there are probably no four books of any author among which, for a favorite, readers hesitate longer than between Hawthorne's four longest stories, there are at any rate many for whom this remains distinctly his largest and fullest production. Suffused as it is with a pleasant autumnal haze, it yet brushes more closely than its companions the surface of American life, comes a trifle nearer to being a novel of manners. The manners it shows us indeed are all interfused with the author's special tone, seen in a slanting afternoon light; but detail and illustration are sufficiently copious; and I am tempted for my own part to pronounce the book, taking subject and treatment together, and in spite of the position as a more concentrated classic enjoyed by "The Scarlet Letter," the closest approach we are likely to have to the great work of fiction, so often called for, that is to do us nationally most honor and most good. The subject reduced to its essence, indeed, accounts not quite altogether for all that there is in the picture. What there is besides is an extraordinary charm of expression, of sensibility, of humor, of touch. The question is that of the mortal shrinkage of a family once uplifted, the last spasm of their starved gentility and flicker of their slow extinction. In the haunted world of Hawthorne's imagination the old Pyncheon house, under its elm in the Salem by-street, is the place where the ghosts are most at home. Ghostly even are its actual tenants, the ancient virgin Hepzibah, with her turban, her scowl, her creaking joints, and her map of the great territory to the eastward belonging to her family,--reduced in these dignities, to selling profitless pennyworths over a counter; and the bewildered bachelor Clifford, released, like some blinking and noble deterre of the old Bastile, from twenty years of wrongful imprisonment. We meet at every turn, with Hawthorne, his favorite fancy of communicatcd sorrows and inevitable atonements. Life is an experience in which we expiate the sins of others in the intervals of expiating our own. The heaviest visitation of the blighted Pyncheons is the responsibility they have incurred through the misdeeds of a hard-hearted witch-burning ancestor. This ancestor has an effective return to life in the person of the one actually robust and successful representative of the race,--a bland, hard, showy, shallow "ornament of the bench," a massive hypocrite and sensualist, who at last, though indeed too late, pays the penalty and removes the curse. The idea of the story is at once perhaps a trifle thin and a trifle obvious,--the idea that races and individuals may die of mere dignity and heredity, and that they need for refreshment and cleansing to be, from without, breathed upon like dull mirrors. But the art of the thing is exquisite, its charm irresistible, its distinction complete. "The House of the Seven Gables," I may add, contains in the rich portrait of Judge Pyncheon a character more solidly suggested than--with the possible exception of the Zenobia of "The Blithedale Romance"any other figure in the author's list.

Weary of Lenox, Hawthorne spent several months of 1852 at West Newton near Boston, where "The Blithedale Romance" was brought forth. He made the most, for the food of fancy, of what came under his hand,--happy in an appetite that could often find a feast in meagre materials. The third of his novels is an echo, delightfully poetized, of his residence at Brook Farm. "Transcendentalism" was in those days in New England much in the air; and the most comprehensive account of the partakers of this quaint experiment appears to have been held to be that they were Transcendentalists. More simply stated, they were young, candid radicals, reformers, philanthropists. The fact that it sprang--all irresponsibly indeed--from the observation of a known episode, gives "The Blithedale Romance" also a certain value as a picture of manners; the place portrayed, however, opens quickly enough into the pleasantest and idlest dream-world. Hawthorne, we gather, dreamed there more than he worked; he has traced his attitude delightfully in that of the fitful and ironical Coverdale, as to whom we wonder why he chose to rub shoulder quite so much. We think of him as drowsing on a hillside with his hat pulled over his eyes, and the neighboring hum of reform turning in his ears, to a refrain as vague as an old song. One thing is certain: that if he failed his companions as a laborer in the field, it was only that he might associate them with another sort of success.

We feel, however, that he lets them off easily, when we think of some of the queer figures and queer nostrums then abroad in the land, and which his mild satire--incurring none the less some mild reproach--fails to grind in its mill. The idea that he most tangibly presents is that of the unconscious way in which the search for the common good may cover a hundred interested impulses and personal motives; the suggestion that such a company could only be bound together more by its delusions, its mutual suspicions and frictions, than by any successful surrender of self. The book contains two images of large and admirable intention: that of Hollingsworth the heavy-handed radical, selfish and sincere, with no sense for jokes, for forms, or for shades; and that of Zenobia the woman of "sympathies," the passionate patroness of "causes," who plays as it were with revolution, and only encounters embarrassment. Zenobia is the most graceful of all portraits of the strong-minded of her sex; borrowing something of her grace, moreover, from the fate that was not to allow her to grow old and shrill, and not least touching from the air we attribute to her of looking, with her fine imagination, for adventures that were hardly, under the circumstances, to be met. We fill out the figure, perhaps, and even lend to the vision something more than Hawthorne intended.

Zenobia was, like Coverdale himself, a subject of dreams that were not to find form at Roxbury; but Coverdale had other resources, while she had none but her final failure. Hawthorne indicates no more interesting aspect of the matter than her baffled effort to make a hero of Hollingsworth, who proves, to her misfortune, so much too inelastic for the part. All this, as we read it to-day, has a soft, shy glamour, a touch of the poetry of far-off things. Nothing of the author's is a happier expression of what I have called his sense of the romance of New England.

In 1853 Franklin Pierce, then President, appointed him consul at Liverpool, which was the beginning of a residence of some seven years in England and in Italy, the period to which we owe "The Marble Faun" and "Our Old Home." The material for the latter of these was the first to be gathered; but the appearance of "The Marble Faun," begun in Rome in 1858 and finished during a second stay in England, preceded that of its companion. This is his only long drama on a foreign stage. Drawn from his own air, however, are much of its inspiration and its character. Hawthorne took with him to Italy, as he had done to England, more of the old Puritan consciousness than he left behind. The book has been consecrated as a kind of manual of Roman sights and impressions, brought together indeed in the light of a sympathy always detached and often withheld; and its value is not diminished by its constant reference to an order of things of which, at present, the yearning pilgrim--before a board for the most part swept bare--can only pick up the crumbs. The mystical, the mythical, are in "The Marble Faun" more than ever at hide-and-seek with the real. The author's fancy for freakish correspondences has its way, with Donatello's points of resemblance to the delightful statue in the Capitol. What he offers us is the history of a character blissfully immature, awakening to manhood through the accidental, the almost unconscious, commission of a crime. For the happy youth before his act--the first complete act of his life--there have been no unanswered questions; but after it he finds himself confronted with all the weary questions of the world. This act consists of his ridding of an obscure tormentor--the obscurity is rather a mistake--a woman whom he loves, and who is older, cleverer, and more acquainted with life than himself. The humanizing, the moralizing of the faun is again an ingenious conceit; but it has had for result to have made the subject of the process--and the case is unique in Hawthorne's work--one of those creations of the story-teller who give us a name for a type. There is a kind of young man whom we have now only to call a Donatello, to feel that we sufficiently classify him. It is a part of the scheme of the story to extend to still another nature than his the same sad initiation. A young woman from across the Atlantic, a gentle copyist in Roman galleries of still gentler Guidos and Guercinos, happens to have caught a glimpse, at the critical moment, of the dismal secret that unites Donatello and Miriam. This, for her, is the tree of bitter knowledge, the taste of which sickens and saddens her. The burden is more than she can bear, and one of the most charming passages in the book describes how at last, at a summer's end, in sultry solitude, she stops at St. Peter's before a confessional, and Protestant and Puritan as she is, yields to the necessity of kneeling there and ridding herself of her obsession. Hawthorne's young women are exquisite; Hilda is; happy sister to the Phoebe of "The House of the Seven Gables" and the Priscilla of "The Blithedale Romance."

The drama in "The Marble Faun" none the less, I think, is of an effect less complete than that of the almost larger element that I can only call the landscape and the spirit. Nothing is more striking than the awkward grace with which the author utters, without consenting to it,--for he is full of half amiable, half-angry protest and prejudice,--the message, the mystery of the medium in which his actors move. Miriam and her muffled bandit have faded away, and we have our doubt and even our fears about Kenyon and his American statuary; but the breath of old Rome, the sense of old Italy, still meets us as we turn the page, and the book will long, on the great sentimental journey, continue to peep out of most pockets.

He returned to America in 1860, settled once more at Concord, and died at Plymouth, New Hampshire, in the arms of Franklin Pierce, in 1864. At home, with the aid of many memories and of the copious diaries ultimately published by his wife and children, he brought forth, one by one, the chapters eventually collected under the title of "Our Old Home." The American "Note Books," the English, and the French and Italian, were given to the world after his death,--in 1868, 1870, and 1871 respectively; and if I add to these the small "campaign" "Life of Franklin Pierce" (1852), two posthumous fragments, "Septimius Felton" and "The Dolliver Romance," and those scraps and shreds of which his table drawers were still more exhaustively emptied, his literary catalogue--none of the longest--becomes complete.

The important item in this remainder is the close, ripe cluster, the series presented by himself, of his impressions of England. These admirable papers, with much of the same fascination, have something of the same uncomforted note with which he had surrendered himself to the charm of Italy: the mixture of sensibility and reluctance, of response and dissent, the strife between his sense of beauty and his sense of banishment. He came to the Old World late in life--though after dabbling for years, indeed, in the fancied phenomena of time, and with inevitable reserves, mistrusts, and antagonisms. The striking thing to my sense, however, is not what he missed but what he so ingeniously and vividly made out. If he had been, imaginatively, rather old in his youth, he was youthful in his age; and when all is said, we owe him, as a contribution to the immemorial process of lively repartee between the mother land and the daughter, the only pages of the business that can be said to belong to pure literature. He was capable of writing "The Marble Faun," and yet of declaring, in a letter from Rome, that he bitterly detested the place and should rejoice to bid it farewell for ever. Just so he was capable of drawing from English aspects a delight that they had yielded not even to Washington Irving, and yet of insisting, with a perversity that both smiled and frowned, that they rubbed him mainly all the wrong way. At home he had fingered the musty, but abroad he seemed to pine for freshness. In truth, for many persons his great, his most touching sign will have been his aloofness wherever he is. He is outside of everything, and an alien everywhere. He is an esthetic solitary. His beautiful, light imagination is the wing that on the autumn evening just brushes the dusky window. It was a faculty that gave him much more a terrible sense of human abysses than a desire rashly to sound them and rise to the surface with his report. On the surface--the surface of the soul and the edge of the tragedy--he preferred to remain. He lingered, to weave his web, in the thin exterior air. This is a partial expression of his characteristic habit of dipping, of diving just for sport, into the moral world without being in the least a moralist. He had none of the heat nor of the dogmatism of that character; none of the impertinence, as we feel he would almost have held it, of any intermeddling. He never intermeddled; he was divertedly and discreetly contemplative, pausing oftenest wherever, amid prosaic aspects, there seemed most of an appeal to a sense for subtleties. But of all cynics he was the brightest and kindest, and the subtleties he spun are mere silken threads for stringing polished beads. His collection of moral mysteries is the cabinet of a dilettante.


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